The Ironic Gift of Doubt

A nun of my acquaintance (actually, I think she might be a sister) told I class I was taking that “your restlessness is what is right with you.” That really struck me because it is so counter-intuitive. The idea that this uncomfortable feeling of restlessness, of always wanting more was in any sense a good thing seems so odd. We are taught in our culture that what is good is to have satiated desires. If we only buy this Jeep, we will have the off-road adventures that our heart desires. If we buy this TV, go on that informative cruise, consume this particular sort of low-fat yoghourt… then (at last!) our desires will be fulfilled!

We all know that isn’t the case. There is always something more we want. It begins to look very much as though buying stuff – even buying experiences – isn’t going to get us where we need to go. We thought we were making progress when we left the stultifying beliefs of our youth – all that endless obsession with petty rules, dull orthodoxy, boring church services, it all seemed so liberating when we first abandoned it. And, wherever our doubt is leading us, it certainly doesn’t seem to be back there. After all, the questions we had that drove us out aren’t going to un-ask themselves. All that certainty, convinced that we had God sown up, we knew exactly what he wanted and, surprise! it was exactly what we wanted – it is pretty unattractive now.

But modern life doesn’t seem to offer anything better. If you don’t buy the hedonic treadmill, well then what? If you can’t consume your way to… well, wherever it is my restlessness is leading me. I don’t know, really. And then it strikes me: this is the ironic gift of doubt. It is the realization that ultimately, life is mystery. The self satisfied atheist with her easy answers is in precisely the same situation as our earlier, zealous self – convinced of our own certitude. Convinced of the adequacy of our answers. The universe, it seems, is all sown up and ready to be given final answers to. But, doubt says, it isn’t. The big questions – why is there something rather than nothing, what on earth is consciousness, why does bad stuff happen to good people, why do people do such terrible stuff as well as such amazing stuff, what is it all ultimately for – these questions are addressed on a scale of “not very well” to “not at all” to “shut up.”

But the gift of doubt is mystery – you are just going to have to be content with mystery. Some things just might not be answerable, at least in terms that would make any sense to you. You have no doubt heard of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem – that in any given system there are statements that are true, but are not explainable in terms of that system. Perhaps it’s something like that: for some things we are literally going to have be content with mystery. You are just going to have to live with it.

This isn’t an invitation to laziness – far from it. Mysteries are endlessly fascinating. We can never get to the bottom of them. They are not safe – and we so want to be safe. Our naïve belief, and our doubt, stand revealed as attempts to be safe. We want to know the right answers so that we don’t have to risk anything. But life is anything but safe, and, worse still, it seems to demand courage from you – because you have to choose. And even if you think you are successfully avoiding choice, carefully sitting on the fence of the amiable agnosticism of our culture, then you are in fact choosing culture by default. You are choosing consumerism, individualism leading to complete atomisation, lack of connection, refusal to love, and the whole general internal deadness that our capitalist society gives us. And the best we can do is to numb the pain – but that comes at the cost of numbing our joys as well, because it turns out that you can’t selectively numb emotion. Again with the irony – the culture that is so good at providing us with the physical wherewithal to live, and giving us longer, safer, healthier, richer lives than ever before, is terrible at feeding our souls.

My favourite example of this is the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. It is a beautiful building – an engineering triumph. But the contents… well, not so much. It’s like watching the Superbowl half time entertainment live by satellite relay. Impressive engineering – but to what end?

One of my favourite writers and theologians is a Czech priest named Tomáš Halík. In his (excellent) book Patience With God, he calls this process “doubting our doubts.” We begin to think that our rational, calculating mind – the part of us that delights in TED talks and neat technical solutions – is simply not enough in the face of the unanswerable mysteries that are our existence and the question of what on earth to do in the face of it.

So not least of the ironic gifts of doubt is this: it leads you out, but it can lead you back again, if you take it seriously. Back to the church, to the sacraments, and even back to, of all places, Scripture. Because you realise you need a place to stand, and, for me, this is the best thing I know about.

One comment

  1. Lupita · · Reply

    Wow! Wow! Wow! I am amazed I used the 2 words, “Ironic Doubt”, writing my first book. However, not previously knowing there is lots of meaning to it.

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